Employing a newly aggressive approach, federal immigration authorities arrested five people Wednesday at the Lawrence office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an office where immigrants can seek legal residency.
The arrests alarmed immigrant advocates who said a law enforcement operation at a government office marks a shift from past practices and could have a chilling effect on immigrants who are taking steps to obtain lawful residency.
“They respond to an interview that was scheduled by the government, they listen to the government, show up when they’re supposed to, and they’re arrested,” said Susan Church, chair of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
According to immigration officials, the five people who were arrested do not have criminal records but had been ordered deported by an immigration judge. However, even if immigrants have been ordered deported, according to Church and other advocates, they still have options to obtain legal residency — for instance if they have a change in an asylum application or if they marry a US citizen.
“There are 100 reasons to reopen [cases]. The courts have the authority to reopen those [removal] orders, and they often do reopen them,” Church said, adding that the new possibility of arrests could be “terrifying” to immigrants and their lawyers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials confirmed the arrests, which were first reported by WBUR, but did not identify the people who were arrested or provide details of their cases.
Shawn Neudauer, an ICE spokesman, said in a statement that the agency, “responding to an investigative tip, arrested five foreign nationals . . . all five individuals have final orders of removal issued by a federal immigration judge. All five will be held in custody pending removal from the United States.”
Neudauer and other officials with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration matters, did not address criticism that the arrests could have a chilling effect on immigrants who go to a government office in an effort to comply with an immigration process.
Paula Grenier, a spokeswoman for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement, “It is the policy and practice of [USCIS] to fully cooperate with law enforcement partners in the performance of their duties.” She referred questions to ICE.
Neudauer said that two of the people arrested had no criminal convictions, but three of them had been cited for traffic offenses. One had multiple violations for driving with a suspended license and insurance violations.
The arrests reflect the Trump administration’s pledge to arrest, detain, and deport immigrants who commit crimes or who violate immigration laws, which are a civil offense.
ICE carried out a record number of deportations under President Obama, but in 2014, the Obama administration ordered ICE to focus on deporting immigrants who were wanted for serious crimes.
Church said nonviolent immigrants who have removal orders — for instance, if they entered the country without authorization and were apprehended and ordered removed — were considered low priorities for deportation. Some people may not have known they had outstanding removal orders. If they missed a court hearing, a judge could have issued an order without their knowledge, she said.
In the past, Church said, it was rare for an immigrant to be apprehended at a Citizenship and Immigration Services office and subsequently detained.
The five people arrested Wednesday are believed to still be held by ICE. One of them, a woman who had been living in the country without incident for 16 years, was confirmed to be in custody as of Friday.
Brian Doyle, a Boston-based immigration attorney who represented the woman, said she is a Brazilian national in her late 30s whose visa expired. She has been in a relationship with her spouse, a US citizen, for eight years, and has raised a daughter and two stepchildren with him. The woman also owns a small business in the MetroWest area, which employs about a dozen people, and had been paying taxes, according to Doyle.
Doyle said the woman had completed an interview at the Lawrence office before she was detained. “It’s just sort of cruel, to subject someone to that,” he said. “You’re lowest on the priority list, at least historically. But, of course, Trump has come out with an enforcement list where everyone is a priority.”
The arrests were quickly condemned by immigrant advocates.
Roxana Rivera, vice president of 32BJ SEIU, one of the largest unions representing immigrant workers in Massachusetts, said in a statement, “This immigration approach is based on the ugly notion that America should expel millions of hard-working immigrants, most of whom have worked and lived in America for more than a decade. This is impractical, un-American, and wrong.”
Milton Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.